Girls Lean Back Everywhere

Author Edward de Grazia participated in some of the recent cases of American obscenity law. In this work, he traces the development of that branch of law as it pertains to literature, beginning with the chartering of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice by Anthony Comstock. The society pressured the federal government to pass legislation, known as the Comstock law, that allowed Comstock to seize materials sent through the mails if he deemed them to be obscene. After Comstock’s death, John Sumner continued the work of the society. He had the publishers of THE LITTLE REVIEW arrested in 1920 for publishing parts of James Joyce’s ULYSSES, thus beginning the major court battles concerning censorship.

Most of the volume concerns how the laws concerning obscenity became progressively freer. Many of the cases discussed trace the development of the Brennan doctrine, which stated that literary works could not be banned unless they were utterly without social value. Thus, a work’s prurient appeal could not be weighed against social importance as in the past; a work with any social importance would be found not to be obscene. The final chapters describe a retreat to the “reasonable person” standard, by which works can be found obscene if a reasonable person would find them so. This, according to the author, is an undesirable reversal of the Brennan doctrine.

This volume is up to date, covering cases involving 2 Live Crew and the Robert Mapplethorpe photograph exhibit in Cincinnati as well as the politics behind funding decisions made by the National Endowment for the Arts. The final chapters expand the scope of the book, covering live performances, photographs, and performance art. Throughout, participants in the events tell their own stories. Well more than half of the text consists of transcripts or quotations from judges, politicians, and artists. The author’s narrative skillfully links these segments.